We were told to be at the Kampala Coach office a half hour before our departure time at 3:00. We arrived a little before 2:30 and waited. And waited some more. Moved outside next to the bus, and waited some more. Men were packing the undercarriage of the bus, shoving as much as possible into the storage cabins, kicking the door shut, and then gathering additional men to help secure the latch so it wouldn’t bust open on the road. It was amusing at first, but after an hour of the same routine, it became annoying and we were ready to go. Our “business luxury” bus was as dirty as an overnight bus in India and was two hours behind schedule. We wouldn’t arrive in Arusha until at least 22 hours after we left Kampala.
It was close to midnight when we reached our first border crossing (Uganda/Kenya). I feel in a small (small) way that I’ve grown accustomed to sketchy border crossings at this point in the trip. While everyone crowded in the brightly lit Ugandan passport control, I took in the long line and shoved my bag into Andrew’s hands and went out into the dark to look for a ladies room. This is a bit tricky. When there are no lights and people milling about in the middle of the night, it’s a gamble of who you’re going to ask for help or directions. I always assume my ‘I ain’t scared’ face and sometimes hum I won’t deny it, I’m straight rider, you don’t want to mess with me… (only Tupac didn’t sing ‘mess’ and neither did I)
I settled on the two guards outside of the ATM booth. This might have been a mistake as they proved to be creepier than their uniforms deemed them to be. I politely asked where the toilet was. They didn’t look up until I repeated it a few more times, a few more different ways, making it clear that I wasn’t going anywhere until I got an answer.
“Money” One of them eventually replied. (Sometimes bathrooms do cost money, and I gladly pay – when they are clean and there’s tissue. Ok, they are hardly ever clean, and only sometimes is there tissue. But I’m almost always prepared with my own.) I was in a bit of a rush and was slightly annoyed that they were informing me that there was indeed a bathroom, but it cost money.
“Yes. I know. Where. is. it?” I tried to ask patiently.
“Money.” The one demanded again. At this point I realized he was asking for money for directions. He obviously didn’t realize who he was talking to. I became indignant, and considered briefly what would happen if I peed inside his ATM booth. Ok, not really. I wouldn’t do that. But I might have made him a little bit nervous standing in front of him not handing over any money knowing full well I could go wherever I wanted, if I really wanted to. He sighed and waved his arm behind him. Which really, didn’t help at all, but I went and eventually found where I needed to go and got back to Andrew before he started to worry- er, more than he probably already was, but didn’t admit to. I relayed my story briefly before the Israeli guy on our bus relayed his story of almost getting ripped off exchanging money. I think we were all more surprised by the fact that none of us were surprised by the antics of the men loitering around the passport control.
Crossing into Kenya was not only sketchy, but turned frustrating on the Kenyan side when we learned we couldn’t pay for our visa in American bills printed before 2005. This is advertised nowhere and I pity the fool (me) who rolls up to the counter with a perfectly crisp $100 with 2004 stamped on it. Luckily, Andrew had a more recent bill and we were able to get back on our bus heading to Nairobi.
I didn’t think it was possible for dirt roads to be any worse than they were in Uganda… But in Kenya, they turned out to be much, much worse. We stopped in Nairobi for a brief twenty minutes before riding all morning towards Tanzania.
The Kenya/Tanzania crossing was uneventful, save for the giant groups of Americans standing in line and shouting their conversations all over the place. I leaned over to Andrew and whispered, “I get it. I get why people don’t think we’re American now…” We aren’t traveling in a pack of upper middle-class white people. We aren’t wearing American sports jerseys. Our gym-shoes aren’t bright white. We don’t have a guide with us to help us fill out our visa forms. Our backpacks are dirty. And not ‘Oh we just went on safari, look at this smudge of dirt on my awesome new travel pack.’ They. are. dirty. Like a dog peed on mine in India, I washed it in the UAE, but I’m pretty sure dogs would mark their territory on the front pocket if I let them. dirty. Maybe sometimes not looking American is a bad thing… but as proud as I am to be ‘merican, I’m glad I don’t come across the same way the obvious Americans do.
We arrived in Arusha early in the afternoon and after getting settled in a room at a busy hostel just outside of the downtown ‘Clocktower’ area, we walked into town for lunch. Along the way, a middle-aged western woman approached me and said “You need to wear your backpack on both shoulders. This is a dangerous area.”
“Oh, thank you. I know. I’m just terribly tired and we’re not going far, but thank you.” I responded, knowing full well it could get stolen, but that I was a big girl. who was tired. But she was just trying to be nice. At least, until she reached around my back and pulled the strap up over my other shoulder and said “No. Really. You need to wear both shoulder straps here.” She walked away sighing, no doubt, at what she assumed was how dumb I was.
My initial reaction was along the lines of ‘that was weird.’ And then I ate a meal for the first time in 24 hours.
“What. just. happened out there? Did she really reach around me to pull my backpack strap up over my free shoulder?” I asked Andrew.
I can understand someone being nice and suggesting care over one’s self and bags. Not that I would ever do so in the same manner that she did… But I can see the motivation for doing so, wanting to be a good samaritan of sorts. But I am 30 years old. THIRTY! I think I can take responsibility of my backpack on one or both shoulders by this point. But I KNOW she walked away judging me as I eased one strap off my shoulder again.
I wondered how old she thought I was. Would she have treated me differently if she knew I my age? If she knew I’ve been traveling around the world for six months now. After traveling for two months by myself throughout S.E. Asia. After living in foreign countries (four in total, if you count the two from studying abroad in college) for six -maybe seven- years.
“Don’t you know I have my head on a swivel, motherfunny?” Andrew said (only he didn’t say ‘motherfunny’) once upon a time in India and it’s always stuck with me. I wish I would have said that to this woman. I wish I would have told her not to talk to a thirty year old like myself, as if I was thirteen. I wish I would have asked her what made her turn into Little Ms. Bossypants with another white girl in the middle of a small town in Tanzania.
“She’s probably gone home to her husband complaining about the stupid young tourist who is probably going to get her bag stolen today…” I sighed. “And now, my bag probably will get stolen…” I thought out loud after my tangent to Andrew about all of the above…
It didn’t. It still might. But at least it didn’t in Arusha.